Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Janeane Garofalo, who's been everything from a proto-slacker in Reality Bites to a brash media consultant on The West Wing. Garofalo briefly flirted with leading-lady parts in critically maligned romantic comedies, but she's still best known as "the sarcastic best friend," a role she embodied so well that the industry still casts for a "Janeane Garofalo type" if they don't go directly to the source. Following a two-year stint on Air America radio, Garofalo returned to stand-up comedy, doing a string of dates alongside her Ratatouille co-star Patton Oswalt.
The West Wing (2005-06) — "Louise Thornton"
Janeane Garofalo: I was really excited to do it, because I'd always wanted to try drama with odd moments of levity. Plus, it was an exceptionally well-written show, and it's very rare in television when you get on something good. I was only supposed to do three episodes. All of a sudden, I was on 22 of them, and I just didn't say anything. I thought they forgot I was only supposed to do three. They just never stopped calling me in every Monday for table read-throughs. I did have a problem with my eyebrows, though. I drew them in super-heavy like Groucho Marx, and I can't really explain why I would do a thing like that. It looks ridiculous. Just know that I know it looks ridiculous.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001) — "Beth"
JG: That was the best time I ever had doing a project, and also the drunkest. I fell down a lot, due to the wet terrain and the heavy drinking.
Mystery Men (1999) — "The Bowler"
JG: That was also before I quit drinking. I didn't fall down that much, though, since there wasn't wet terrain in Los Angeles. It was very long hours and very little got accomplished. It was one of those alleged blockbusters that was overbudgeted and overhyped. It went from being a great script when it was sent to me, to being—in my opinion—a fairly mediocre non-event. But it was nice to get paid that much to sit around.
The A.V. Club: Do you think they were trying to build a franchise?
JG: [Laughs.] I have no idea what they were trying to do, but they sure didn't accomplish it.
AVC: Would you have liked to have seen yourself on, say, a Burger King glass?
JG: Well, I was a doll, and I was on T-shirts. I had a T-shirt, but one of my dogs ruined it. He'd had surgery and the vet suggested I put a shirt on him so he wouldn't lick his scar. He then proceeded to urinate all over it.
The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle (2000) — "Minnie Mogul"
JG: I was only in that for two seconds, and I never saw it. I was thrilled to work opposite Carl Reiner and Robert De Niro. Mr. Reiner was very chatty and delightful, but I learned that if you want Robert De Niro to like you, don't speak at all, and he'll be friendly to you. If you're chatty and ask him dumb questions that he's been asked a million times, he'll be quiet. If you're quiet too, he'll be conversant with you. We'd done Cop Land together, and because I was quiet on both sets, I think he felt comfortable being nice to me.
Dog Park (1998) — "Jeri"
JG: Dog Park was a blast. I love Bruce McCulloch. That was a case of the studio taking the cut away from the director, and it went from being a great movie to a shitty movie. Bruce's original cut that I saw was hilarious.
AVC: Speaking of The Kids In The Hall, what happened to your role in Brain Candy?
JG: Oh, I love Brain Candy! I was a girl who tries to seduce Kevin McDonald's character. I was only there one night, during a heat wave in Toronto, and I was so flattered to be asked to participate in anything at all to do with Kids In The Hall. To this day, I don't understand why they were so nice to do that, to fly me out there and put me up in Toronto. I did a couple of scenes that never made it in—except you can see me on a monitor in the party scene. I was disappointed, of course, because anybody would want to be part of a Kids In The Hall project. Which I wasn't once it was released.
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-97) — "Paula"
JG: I've got nothing but great things to say about that. My only sorrow was that I didn't have a bigger part. Usually, I'm trying to do less—because it's embarrassing, most TV—but in this case, like with The West Wing, the writing's so good, you want more. Boy, does that give you street cred for years after, if you tell people you were on The Larry Sanders Show! I had Ricky Gervais—which is shocking, because it's Ricky Gervais!—chase me down on Sunset Boulevard, just to say how much he loved Larry Sanders.
The Matchmaker (1997) — "Marcy Tizard"
JG: That was a fantastic experience on a movie that didn't turn out so well, but boy, I loved every second of living in Ireland. I lived in a town called Roundstown, population 250, a little fishing community. That was phenomenal, but the movie was bitterly disappointing. Especially since I told everyone how great it was, because I was confusing the time I'd had with the film. A bunch of friends of mine went to the screening, and I was like, "Oh shit!" It isn't horrible, but it's not particularly anything.
AVC: Do you think Hollywood was trying to groom you for more romantic comedies?
JG: I don't think Hollywood was trying to do anything with me. In fact, they lost interest pretty quick. I think I got lucky, briefly, in the '90s, and it just so happened that those movies were the opportunities that came my way. Then it just kind of stopped. You get pigeonholed if you don't look a certain way. I don't know what happened, really. I think I got older and drank too much. Then I got sober and worked at Air America for two years. Now I don't know what's gonna happen next.
Seinfeld (1996) — "Jeannie"
JG: I'm the only comedian in the world who can't do a Seinfeld impression, and I was hired to do a Seinfeld impression. The Larry Sanders stage was right next to the Seinfeld stage, so I think Jerry was just being nice. Every once in a while, I'd be walking to lunch, and I'd see Jerry, and I think he was like, "Let's just get that girl who's next door anyway." The first episode I did was the last show of the season, so they broke the set down after. They had all this cereal in the fake supermarket—Jerry and I are both cereal fanatics, and we'd spoken of our mutual cereal love—and Jerry said I could take whatever I wanted.
NewsRadio (1995) — "Nancy"
JG: I think I failed miserably on NewsRadio. I was very nervous because of the caliber of the cast—especially Dave Foley—so I think I did a terrible job. I got it because of [creator] Paul Simms, who was one of the head writers on Larry Sanders. It's one of those things where once you're connected, you get to stay connected for a few years. Once you're not connected, you just don't get asked to do anything. I don't say that bitterly, because I'm truly grateful for the opportunities I did have, but it's strange how quick it comes and how quickly it can end sometimes.
Reality Bites (1994) — "Vickie Miner"
JG: That was my first experience with a studio film. I didn't understand what was going to happen, or why the hours were so long. I know Ben [Stiller] was not thrilled with me there. He also didn't like my attitude during rehearsal, because I hate to rehearse. He sort of fired me, but luckily I was rehired because Winona [Ryder] stepped in on my behalf. Let's put it this way: I don't have a good work ethic. I have a real casual relationship with hours. I don't understand why, in entertainment, the hours are as long as they are. It seems like everything takes forever, and no one can tell you why exactly. You don't know where the time goes, and I find that it's not the most productive use of my time. I tend to make that clear, and people don't like that too much.
AVC: How well do you think Reality Bites has aged?
JG: It's not really my cup of tea—it never was—but I live near NYU, and there are young people I meet every year who go nuts over that when they recognize me, and rave about Reality Bites. I think it means a lot more to people younger than me. I was not the target audience. I was 29 playing a 21-year-old, so I don't think I understand why younger people like it.
The Adventures Of Pete & Pete (1993) — "Ms. Brackett"
JG: Oh, that was awesome. Too bad I was so hungover.
The Ben Stiller Show (1992) — various roles
JG: I remember every single thing about that, and miss that year of my life terribly, because everything was so new and exciting. The only downside was that it was such a good experience in television, and I didn't understand that most experiences in television are not like that. That show and Larry Sanders completely spoiled me. It was the opposite of baptism by fire. It was baptism by sweet, creamy chocolate. Then I went on to do other TV that fucking sucked, and I didn't understand why the environment outside of Stiller and Sanders was so shitty. Again, I don't think I help myself by pointing out how not fun most of my TV gigs were.
AVC: How different do you think your life would have been had the show continued?
JG: I don't think my life would have been much different, although I do think the show would have morphed. I think that David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Dino Stamatopoulos' sensibilities would have moved to the forefront, so the show would have moved away from parody and toward more creative, esoteric comedy like Mr. Show. I would have loved to have seen that. But I think it would have been the same, except perhaps I would not have done Saturday Night Live. Which would have been a good thing, because that's one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made.
AVC: Which character do you identify with most?
JG: Another person would probably say they're all the same. I don't really get asked to do things that are very versatile. I will say that I'm not what people think I'm like. I'm not the person from Daria or Romy And Michele's High School Reunion, but I used to keep getting offered parts like that. I don't really identify with those at all, even though people think I'm like that. I don't know if you can tell, but I'm quite chatty. But I don't know… maybe Marcy in The Matchmaker? Which is odd, because it's really hard to see who that character is, but I think maybe just my interest in politics? [Laughs.] I don't know.